Yesterday I coordinated an emergency gift operation involving a street corner rendezvous, an unspecified amount of tinsel, one very patient husband, and two bottles of wine. The occasion? It's complicated. The end of the school year coincided with both Lunar New Year and a school dinner I was unable to attend. Also, our principal was leaving. Also, our vice principal wasn't. And it was raining. Most simple things aren't actually that simple. Think of the last time you gave someone a gift, maybe for Valentine's Day. It probably breaks down in your mind like this:
I like you + occasion = present
It's first-grade math, right?
Until you consider all the things you didn't have to think about. You did not, for instance, get roses for (or from) your boss. Ditto for the kids. You didn't send chocolates to that hottie at the bar, or a pajama-gram to your best friend Chuck. These things are creepy and wrong.
Speaking of wrong, you definitely did not buy your beloved a dehumidifier, despite him/her saying just the other day how it would stop mildew from building up on the laundry room ceiling.
So the equation actually reads something like this:
As you can see, this is mathematically unsound.
Normally, it doesn't matter; we already know the answer without solving for it. 2+2=4. Relationship+February 14th=dinner reservation. Duh.
But unlike 2+2, the formulas for gift giving are not universal. Change countries, and suddenly you're back in advanced algebra with no idea how to solve for X. And if you're not incredibly careful, you'll commit the local version of giving your supervisor heart-print panties.
Here are some instances when presents might be considered appropriate in South Korea. Can you figure out when to give what to who?
It's your dad's birthday! You give him...
A) gift cards B) alcohol C) money
The correct answer is C. Celebrate with cash!
Your co-worker's great aunt dies, and you attend the funeral. You bring along... A) flowers B) money C) a sympathetic expression
The answer, of course, is B. Nothing says I'm sorry for your loss like an envelope of small, unmarked bills.
Your best friend's getting married. She's never had her own apartment, and she loves to cook. You bring ... to the wedding.
A) a rice cooker B) a block of knives C) money
Once again, the right answer is C. Lightning Round follow-up! Who gets the money?
A) your friend B) her parents
To prevent a scandal, I recommend B.
You may have picked up on a pattern. Money is the most common gift in Korea. One reason for this is the strong bonds between families, school-friends, and co-workers. The money is like a communal kitty. It moves from family to family as events come up.
It's a nice system. But how much do you give?
It's Lunar New Year, and your sister's kid bows to you. He's in high school. You hand him...
A) nothing B) $10 C) $20 D) $50 E) $100
The answer is D. A full bow from a high schooler runs $50 at new year. Actually, $50 is a safe bet on most occasions.
But there are certain situations where money is inappropriate.
Your boss gives everyone a box at Chuseok. It probably contains:
A) cooking oil B) toothpaste C) spam
In this case, everyone's a winner! On the traditional holidays, presents are incredibly practical. They're also non-optional, and many Koreans buy gifts for people they hardly know. Therefore, the best gift-boxes are as generic and useful as possible.
You've moved into a new apartment, and are having friends over for the first time. What housewarming gift will they bring?
A) scented candles B) a framed photo C) Oh my god, the biggest jumbo-pack of toilet paper you've ever seen.
It's C of course. We keep ours next to the fridge; it's too big for the closet. Sometimes practicality gets a little out of hand.